It is increasingly common for races to have pace groups for marathons and half marathons. I’m even seeing more 10ks and shorter distances with pacers. With a good race strategy and a little planning, a pace group can be a great tool and resource for achieving race day success.
About Pace Groups
What’s The Point?
Pace groups are arranged to either run a particular pace (for example, 10:00 minutes per mile) or finish in a particular time (for example, a 2-hour half marathon).
Pace group leaders take on the responsibility of watching the pace and adjusting as needed so runners can have one less thing to pay attention to on race day.
Ideally, the pacer will lead you to your goal (notice I said ideally – more on that later).
How Pace Groups Function
I’ve paced multiple marathons and half marathons and while each slightly varied how they manage pace groups, they all functioned in basically the same way. Review the website for your race before the event to find race specific info.
Running with a pace group is simple: You pick the pace you want to run and on race morning, you find your pacer and run!
Pacers will line up in the starting chute according to time, usually 10-20 minutes before the race starts and will be identifiable in some way: bright, easily identifiable shirts, carrying signs, balloons, or other markers.
I’ve never seen mandatory pre-race sign up to participate in a pace group, but I have seen races with optional advance registration (mostly for planning purposes). Again, check your race website or expo for race specific information.
And yes, carrying the sign for the whole race can be annoying, but I get used to it pretty quick – unless it’s a windy day. Then it’s just annoying.
How To Run With A Pace Group
Before Race Day
Scope It Out In Advance
Review the race website for pace group information. Will the race have groups? What pace groups will they have? Is there optional (or mandatory) sign-up? Some races have pacer bios or videos available before the race.
Check out how your pace group will be structured on race day. Is there one pacer? Two? Will one pacer be with you the whole way or will there be a pacer switch at the mid-way point?
Pace groups will often have a booth at the pre-race expo. If they are there, stop by. Say hi. Meet the pacers if they are there. See if they have pace bands you can wear.
Review Your Goals
Consider your race goals.
It is a good idea to set multiple goals: I usually have a best case scenario goal (for when everything is going great), a pretty sure I can do it goal (for when things are going according to plan), and a worst case goal (when I just need to get through the stupid race already).
Does your goal(s) align with the pace group your race offers? While races try to have a large range of pacers to accommodate all speeds and skill levels, pace group options in the really fast and slower ranges may be more limited due to a lack of available pacers.
Every race I have paced for allows runners to move between groups freely, so consider your goals, and join up with a pace group that aligns with your race strategy. For example:
- If you have a tendency to go out too fast, start with a slower group (to provide pace discipline), then move up to a faster group;
- If the course has hilly or tough sections, consider starting with a slower group and move up when you are still feeling good after the hard sections; or
- If you are confident with your training and pre-race prep, start with your ‘best case’ group and hopefully stay there. But know you can move back if you need to.
Race Morning Before You Run
When you arrive on race morning, the best place to find your pace group is in the starting chute 10-15 minutes before the race starts.
If you weren’t able to talk to your pacer at the expo, introduce yourself and talk to your pacer about their strategy.
Specifically, pacers may differ in their approaches to:
- Water/aid stations. Will they run through or walk?
- Hills. Will they run at a consistent pace or consistent effort?
- Handling congestion at the race start.
Find out how you should check in with your pacer if you are concerned about the pace.
At times during the race, you may go faster or slower than the pace you think is correct. This may be intentional. For example, on a hilly course running a consistent effort, the pace will be slower on the uphill, faster on the down.
But it also could be that the pacer is off. A pacer may be pacing a speed they are not used to running, or maybe they just got distracted.
Find out if your pacer is open to questions about pace and how they prefer it be addressed.
What To Remember When Running With A Pace Group
Pacers Are Human, Part 1
Pacers are people, not metronomes.
As I always say to my pacees: I take pacing seriously. I do my very best when I pace. But ultimately, I’m a girl with a watch.
Even the best pacer will occasionally off.
Know that little variations are possible (and to be expected), but check in with your pacer if you are concerned about pace variations.
Pacers Are Human, Part 2
Most pacers are very experienced runners and racers. But experienced or not, running 13 or 26 miles can present challenges.
Even when pacing what for us is a comfortable pace, we can have a terrible race. We can bonk. I’ve known pacers who have twisted ankles or had to drop mid-race.
We are still people running a race too.
You Are Ultimately Responsible For Your Race
Pacers are a tool and are there to help you, but you are ultimately responsible for:
- Hitting your race goals (or not);
- Knowing the course;
- Keeping the pace you want.
Ideally, pacers know the course and will hit their pace every mile. But, as I’ve mentioned, pacers are human, and they may not.
They may be unfamiliar with a course and miss a turn. They can get off pace.
If your heart is set on a specific goal, don’t blindly follow a pacer (or any other runner for that matter).
Review the course map before you run. Have your own pace band in case your pacer is off or you lose your group. Be ready to take charge if you need to, to achieve race day victory!